Akiko Kuno, 72, believes her destiny is tied with a red string to the United States. So she says as she speaks of her and her family’s life at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan in Tokyo, where as a child she first tasted Coca-Cola and a hamburger.
Kuno’s red string stretches back through her mother and her grandmother to her great-grandmother, Sutematsu Oyama, the first Japanese woman to graduate from an American university — at the top of her class and as valedictorian of Vassar College’s class of 1882.
Like all the women in her family, Kuno is an exemplar — a woman who has followed her own path despite the strong social and family pressures of Japanese society.
Born in Shinagawa in Tokyo, Kuno’s first contact with the U.S. came from her mother. “She was very outgoing for her age,” Kuno recalls. Her mother was fluent in English and studied abroad at Hope College in Michigan and at the American Conservatory of Music in Chicago during the Great Depression. “Instead of reading me Japanese fairy tales when I was a child, she would read American stories like Rip Van Winkle.”
Her grandmother was also outgoing and unafraid to speak her mind. She was fluent in English as well, learning it from Sutematsu, and when she married in 1904, moved with her banker husband to London for two years.
While in London, her grandmother met a young boy from India. Meeting another Asian in the British capital, she thought she needed to say something to him, Kuno says. She urged the boy to be courageous, to study hard and not to have an inferiority complex, telling him that as an Asian he’d have a better chance in the future.
The boy would grow up to become Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, and in 1957 when he first visited Japan, he sought out the grandmother to thank her for her encouragement. “They had a very emotional reunion,” Kuno says.
When Kuno entered Keio University in the 1950s, a woman with a college education was still outside of social expectations in Japan. If a woman had studied abroad, “men would feel an inferiority complex” in marrying a woman with a higher background in education, she recalls. Kuno went on a summer exchange program to Stanford, spent an extra year abroad at her mother’s alma mater, Hope College, thanks to a scholarship, and graduated from Keio in 1964 with a degree in American history.
Despite pressure from her father to get married, Kuno took a job at the organizing committee for the 1964 Summer Olympic Games in Tokyo. She was part of the torch relay team, flying around the world, bringing the Olympic flame from Greece to each participating country. Eventually she served as a personal secretary to the International Olympic Committee president, Avery Brundage, for the duration of the Tokyo Games.
“I married late — at 31, when my husband found me,” she says with a laugh. Later, when her son was born, and with the social norms what they were, Kuno had to give up her work. So she became involved with the College Women’s Association of Japan, a volunteer organization of Japanese and non-Japanese members dedicated to providing scholarships for Japanese women who want to study in English-speaking countries, or for women from overseas who want to study in Japan.
“I wanted to do something to contribute to educational programs between Japan and the U.S.,” Kuno says, “because through my exchange program and scholarship, my life changed.” She has now been involved with CWAJ for more than 30 years and served as its president in the mid-1980s.
At her father’s urging, she joined the America-Japan Society in the early 1970s, though she didn’t know much about the organization and at first wasn’t very active in it. Since its founding in 1917, the America-Japan Society has played an essential role as the main forum for visiting politicians, diplomats and businesspeople to meet and speak on matters related to the two nations.
After she left the position of CWAJ president, Kuno became even further involved with the society. She rose through the ranks and in 1987 became the first woman on its board of directors. In 1993 she became the first female executive director, and subsequently the first female vice president of that once male-dominated organization.
“This is my latest accomplishment,” she says as she shows a thick book titled “Another Aspect of the Japan-U.S. Relations Viewed through the America-Japan Society Documents.” As executive director, she spent time in the society’s archives and found a trove of important documents related to America-Japan relations.
“Look, here is Charles Lindberg speaking at the society. Prince Iyesato Tokugawa. Helen Keller. John Foster Dulles,” she says as she pages through the book. She points to the photos of past Prime Ministers Kakuei Tanaka and Shigeru Yoshida or American presidents, including Richard M. Nixon and Gerald R. Ford.
Kuno asked top-notch Japanese scholars and historians to read, evaluate and comment on the documents. She then edited the documents and reflections to form the book, adding at the end of each chapter some commentary on interesting episodes during each period of the society’s history.
“Here is another strand of that red string of destiny,” says Kuno. “When I went into the executive director’s office for the first time, I saw up on the wall a photo of the founder and first president, Viscount Kentaro Kaneko. As a boy, he was on the same boat to America as my great-grandmother.”
Kuno knew from her childhood that her great-grandmother was famous for something, but didn’t know much else about her. A random question, though, during a tennis match in 1980 led her eventually to write Sutematsu’s biography, “Unexpected Destinations: The Poignant Story of Japan’s First Vassar Graduate,” published in 1993.
During the tennis match, an American CWAJ colleague asked Kuno suddenly, “Who was the first Japanese woman to graduate from an American university?” She recalls telling the friend that was her great-grandmother. “But I couldn’t answer any other of my friend’s questions, so I resolved to learn more.”
When Sutematsu Yamakawa, daughter of a chief retainer for the head of the Aizu clan in today’s Fukushima Prefecture, was 8 years old, she was rolling unexploded cannonballs out of the way as they rained into the castle keep during the Siege of Aizu in 1868, part of the Boshin War between forces loyal to the waning Tokugawa shogunate and those supporting the return of the Imperial court to political power.
One cannonball flew in, exploded and wounded Sutematsu in the neck and killed her sister-in-law. A young Imperial forces officer in charge of that attacking artillery barrage was Iwao Oyama, Sutematsu’s future husband.
After the Meiji Restoration, Sutematsu, 11, along with her friend, Umeko Tsuda, 7, were chosen in 1871 as part of the Iwakura Mission — a 10-year diplomatic endeavor to send five girls, aged 6 to 14, along with some 50 boys overseas to study and learn as much as possible to help Japan catch up with the West.
After starting her research, it took Kuno almost three years to find the descendants of Sutematsu’s American host family, the Leonard Bacon family in New Haven, Connecticut. She learned that a collection of letters Sutematsu wrote over nearly 40 years to her best friend, Alice Bacon, a daughter in the family, had been kept safe for more than 100 years by the descendants. Beautifully written in Sutematsu’s elegant hand, the letters tell her poignant story. “I could see her inner struggle,” says Kuno.
While in the U.S., Sutematsu and Tsuda had promised to each other that after they returned to Japan, they would establish a women’s university together. But when Sutematsu returned, she was almost 22 and the pressure to get married was strong, while Tsuda was only 17 and felt no such pressure.
Sutematsu had several suitors, including Gen. — and soon to be Prince — Oyama, a widower 18 years her senior and with three young daughters.
“Sutematsu was clever,” says Kuno. “She judged what she could do from her position, and she thought her influence to help Japanese women would be greater if she married Oyama.”
She was also impressed with Oyama, who had studied four years in Switzerland and understood Western culture and spoke English, French and Russian as well. “Oyama was a feminist,” says Kuno. “Most aristocrats at that time had concubines, but he had none. Sutematsu respected that. She respected him as a man, and he respected her as a woman.”
Sutematsu knew that by marrying Oyama, she could give back to Japan, Kuno says. She had a deep-seated feeling of gratitude — perhaps impossible to repay — to her country for the gift of her education.
“As Princess Oyama, she raised money for Umeko Tsuda’s university (today’s Tsuda College in Tokyo), and supported that school until she passed away,” she said.
As she looks back on the efforts made by her female ancestors, Kuno laments that many women today “don’t have any guts.”
She admits that times have changed and she says she does not want to complain about young women today. And there are many “energetic Japanese women doing important things,” including female firefighters, police officers and members of the Self-Defense Forces.
“But now it’s easy to choose the easy way,” she says, urging young women today to challenge themselves.
Women also need to think more about their own country, argues Kuno, saying she is “proud of being a Japanese and of having the Japanese identity.” Emphasizing the Japanese identity in school education, she says, “is not about going back to a militaristic past. It’s a normal, natural feeling to like your country, and to want do something for it.”
Her advice to the younger generation of Japanese women is, “Think about your situation. You can’t do everything, but you should think about what you can do within your own situation.”
“You don’t need to be a statesman,” she says. “You don’t have to be a big person. Even in the small community, you can do something for that community. Always live with that mind, with that way of thinking.”